SALT LAKE CITY — It was the day before Easter 2006 when I received the call. My husband's brother was involved in an ATV accident at the sand dunes and he was air-lifted to the hospital.
I was visiting my mother several hours away when I got the call. I was told he was found unresponsive, face down on the side of a hill. His helmet had softened the impact but it had blocked his airway. Emergency responders were unsure how it happened and how long he remained in that position before he was found. There was speculation that he had been drinking.
After hours of testing and several surgeries to stabilize his spine, doctors determined the single 27-year-old plumber was paralyzed and had a brain injury. His spinal cord was bruised mid-torso but it was enough to cause permanent paralysis. I remember my husband breaking down in tears, sobbing uncontrollably, asking, "Why him? Why not me?"
Uncle Doug wasn't close to my kids when his accident happened. He was young, carefree and trying to establish his own life. He had recently purchased a home and was in the process of remodeling. He wasn't married. He didn't have kids. He was just starting out in life. My husband felt guilty because he had all the experiences Doug lacked.
We spent many days and nights at the hospital. The kids pushed Doug down the hall in his new wheelchair. They would explore the floors of the hospital with him or help straighten up his hospital room. Sometimes they would sit on his lap during his rehabilitation with his physical therapist. There wasn't much excitement for a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old to have in the hospital, but they looked forward to going there as the bond with him grew.
By the time he was finally released from the hospital months later, the kids were very close to him. Doug was forced to sell his new home and move back in with his parents. He would look forward to the kids coming over to visit after school or on the weekends.
Eventually, my husband and I decided to remove the kids from day care and allow him to watch them over the summer. The three of them were inseparable. They took walks around the neighborhood, watched movies together, took trips to the convenience store for treats, talked and laughed. They often begged me to let them sleep over.
My children didn't see Doug as disabled. His wheelchair was an extension of him, and he had to do his best to maneuver around a world full of stairs, narrow doorways and impossible bathrooms.
My husband and I eventually parted ways. I stopped all contact with his family over five years ago, but I never held any ill-will toward Doug. I never objected or interfered with the kids' requests to spend time with him.
The kids continued to grow up, but their love for Uncle Doug never grew old. The bond deepened with each passing day. They would talk to him about what they were doing in school. He made them boxes, necklaces and trinkets in his wood shop. He remembered their birthdays. He listened. He advised. The kids would call him first, often before Mom or Dad, when something great happened or to brag about an accomplishment. Doug was the first person they'd show off the driving permit, the new truck, or the outfit before picking up the homecoming date.
Although they have grown into teenagers, they continue to spend quality time with him. He has helped mold these children with the same praise, care, love and guidance as any biological parent. I always hear that it takes a village to raise a child. I'm fortunate to claim Doug in my village. He may never get married. He may never father children of his own. But he is my kids' other dad, and I love him for it.
Abby Patonai is a Utah native and divorced mother of two teenagers. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.